Sometimes, the path you start on isn’t always the same path you end up succeeding in. There are multiple roads you can take, and as long as you have the mental discipline and fortitude, all of these roads will only lead you to succeed. Joining Rodney Flowers in this episode is John Willkom, the Vice President of Business Development Ecommerce in The Stable. John started his career in basketball and played D1 basketball. He uses this time to share his personal experience as an athlete and the mental edge and toughness that he was able to develop with years of hard work. John gives some advice to aspiring athletes and the younger generation on the things you need to be aware of to get yourself that mental edge. Have a sneak peek into his book of passion, Walk-On Warrior, which, if you love basketball, you’d probably be able to relate and learn a lot from.
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Applying The Mental Discipline Of Sports In Your Daily Lives With John Willkom
As always, I’m excited about this episode. I have John Willkom in the studio with me. He is an author and an eCommerce Executive who has been able to leverage his experience as a D1 basketball player into a successful business career. Back in 2018, John released his first book, Walk-On Warrior. The aim here wasn’t to write a rudy-type story. Rather, it was a raw look into the day-to-day of big-time college sports, the people you meet, and the thousands of hours on the basketball court, which ultimately prepared him for a career that had nothing to do with basketball. We’re going to talk about that. Before we get into that, I want to welcome John to the show.
Rodney, I’m so psyched to be here. I can’t wait to get into this.
I’m glad to have you here. I want to talk about your career as a D1 basketball player. I know there’s a lot of people that may be reading that had that as a dream to play D1 sports. That is big time. Tell us about that a little bit. What was it like to play D1 basketball?
To your point, for me, it was always a dream. My goal when I was young was to try to go as far as I possibly could and that was football, basketball, track. Anything that I competed in, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to play in front of 20,000 fans someday?” I’m sure every kid dreams the same dream. Mine was a little different because I grew up watching Marquette specifically. Marquette was my team. My dad went to school there in the ‘70s when they won their first and only men’s basketball national championship.
When I was little, my dad talked about how great Marquette was. He was super biased. If it was a weeknight and I got my homework done, and Marquette was on TV, that was the only exception where I got to stay up late and watch some of that game. Fast forward into high school, I was a good high school player. I was a three-time All-Conference player. I’ve got a bunch of Division II scholarship offers and I took one of those. That was, to me, as far as I could go and I went and played basketball in Minnesota in my freshman year. I was far away from home. I was in the middle of nowhere in a small town of about 8,000 people.
The entire environment wasn’t a good fit for me and I knew that from the get-go. You stick it out, tough it out and do the best you can, but I knew I wanted to come back to go to school somewhere in Wisconsin. I narrowed it down to the University of Wisconsin or Marquette. I wanted to go to Marquette. I didn’t know, financially, I’d be able to make that work and my parents were on the edge of their seats saying, “You’re going from a free education to one that’s going to be extremely expensive.” We put together a plan and I reached out to the Marquette coaching staff and said, “I don’t expect to have any opportunities here but if I could ever come and help out and be a manager or be a part of the program in any way, I would love an opportunity.”
I got an email back from some admin assistant and she said, “Come down and work in summer camp. Be a part of what we have going on here and we’ll go from there.” I did that and I decided I’m going to Marquette. I enrolled in school, I got in and the transfer was good to go. I spent the month of June down in Milwaukee, being around everything. I worked camps during the day. I work out at night. I was around the program from sunup to sundown, but I love being around it. After about 4 or 5 weeks of that, one of the assistant coaches asked me to start playing with the team at night. I would scrimmage with the guys and 3 or 4 weeks into that, he brought me aside and said, “We want you to be a part of this team and we want you to come back here in September and be ready to compete.”When you are the best at that level, and you're still pushing people, you’re a special individual. Click To Tweet
He challenged me at that point and said, “You’ve got five weeks to go home and do whatever you do, to come back down here and compete against some of the best athletes in the country.” I did that. I took that seriously. That month of August back in my hometown was brutal because I made it that way. I didn’t want to show up with that type of opportunity in front of me and not be in the best position physically and mentally. I came back in September, and the rest is history. I made the team as a walk-on and achieved my dream in that way of being part of a program that meant so much to me.
What were some of the things you did when you went back during those five weeks to get yourself prepared mentally and physically?
It was brutal. I had a schedule. I still had to go back and work a summer job. I was going back and mowing lawns in between my workout schedule where get up at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning, do a couple of hours of basketball drills, work this job. I’ll do a weightlifting session for 1 or 2 hours around noon, go back and work some more, and go and try to scrimmage and play at night. On the days I wasn’t lifting, I was running hills, running sprints, and throwing on a weight vest. There was a date that I’ll never forget where I got done running that last hill with that weight vest on. I’m at the bottom of this hill, I’m lying on my back on the grass and I’m looking up in the sun thinking, “This is one of the best feelings as an athlete, to know I’m done. I ran the 25 hills,” or whatever I was trying to do that day. Some guy comes running out of his car and comes over there thinking, “This guy’s having a heart attack. Why is he laying on the ground in the middle of the grass?” I told him I was good.
That’s a feeling that every athlete is constantly chasing in a weird way. You want to push yourself to a point where you’re not going to die unnecessarily, but maybe a little further than you did the day before. That was my thought with all the workouts. Each week, I seem to be making more and more progress. As I did that, I saw my mind and my mental toughness change in a way where I went down there and said, “No matter what these guys put in front of me, quitting isn’t an option for me. I’m here. I got this rare opportunity and I’m as prepared as I can possibly be knowing that I did this stuff for the last five weeks.”
How did you deal with maybe some of the self-talk that you experienced? A lot of these guys have scholarships. They know they belong there. They’ve been experiencing winning and being the best all of their lives. You come along and you’re in a different situation than those guys, but yet have the opportunity to compete. A lot of times, when we’re in those types of situations, we’re tough on ourselves. We’ll say to ourselves, “Maybe I don’t belong? Maybe I’m not enough.” How did you deal with that and put yourself in a position to compete at that level?
I tried to be good to myself. I tried to take an honest look in the mirror and say, “This is what I am and I feel I know what I’m capable of becoming but I probably have to work a little bit harder than a lot of the rest of these guys.” There’s no fault in saying that. I wasn’t 6’10” or 250 pounds but I always knew that I enjoyed hard work and some people don’t like that. If I could choose to watch a movie for two hours or play 5 on 5, run some sprints or something, I would probably do the latter. I get a lot out of that. There’s an inner satisfaction with finishing something like that.
The funny thing is because of where I was and how appreciative I was to be there, I looked at things in the locker room probably a little bit differently than some of the rest of those guys. When I showed up to practice even in my jersey, shorts, and socks, and we had custom team underwear and we were always getting new Nike shoes, I’m like, “This is amazing.” Some guys certainly didn’t have that mentality and they probably didn’t get as far as they could have based on their natural God-given ability. There were guys that did, too. I played with two guys. Steve Novak was one that played NBA for ten years. He had a great run with the Knicks.
A guy I guarded every day and pushing him was Travis Diener, who was drafted by the Magic in the second round. He’s still playing professionally in Italy but also played as a backup point guard in the league for 6 or 7 years. Those were guys where I would say, “These guys have both.” It was pretty cool to be around that where they could easily take days off. When you set an example like that when you are maybe the best even at that level, and you’re still pushing people, that’s a special individual.
What would you say are some of the key takeaways from that experience?
The first one is that your mental discipline grows over time and that’s one thing that a lot of people don’t understand. You could come and practice with the team for a day or a week and you might make it through that, and you say, “Hooray for me,” and you tell all your buddies. Try doing that year-round. Try doing it every day where you’re like, “I can’t believe that I’m going to do three more hours of this when I’m brutally sore from yesterday.” In some cases, I’m injured and I’m still trying to make it through. That’s one. The other thing is, you’ve got to be patient with the process because if you see this as, “Now is my Rocky moment,” you’re not going to be able to continue to go on and on for a long period of time.
You’ve got to roll with the punches. The other thing and this comes through my book, was my mentality now that I’m 36, is much different than when I was nineteen. The other thing about college sport is that a lot of these guys are the kids mentally. You’re still trying to live like a college student, have some friends, and have a social life, even when you don’t have hardly any time to do that. That’s important, too, to joke around in the locker room and have some camaraderie with these people because you’re spending most of your waking time on a daily basis with those guys.
I want to go back to that first key point that you made. I had a conversation with someone, and we were talking about endurance, the ability to endure adversity. Their solution for endurance was determination and they have to be determined. I agree. Determination is a big component and at the same time, determination can only take you so far. What separates those that can go far and those that seem to fall short. There’s a conditioning of the mind that happens beyond pure determination.
I would like to think that you had dealt with some level of mental toughness or challenges before this experience because it seems, based on the conversation, you had some level of fortitude within you to go the distance, whereas some people fall short. It’s the patterning and the conditioning of the mind that’s, “I’ve been in this situation before. It’s not going to kill me. I can go a little bit further or I know this is a trigger for me. Now that this experience has presented itself, I know that I need to get into a certain type of zone to survive and go the distance.” What would you say to that? Is that a true statement based on your experience?
It’s true. When I was in probably seventh grade, we got a new basketball coach. On the first day I show up, this guy’s like, “We don’t wear black socks here.” I’m like, “This guy is going to be a real treat to play for.” This guy changed my life. We had arguably college-level practices in 7th and 8th grade. We did so much running. We were going balls to the wall the entire time and when we play, we press the whole game. This guy gave me so much confidence because, for the first time, I was taught and conditioned.Having a deep personal relationship with people allows you to work alongside them the right way. Click To Tweet
Everyone says that the games are easy. The games still weren’t easy but I would go out and do the same things. It’s not like I would fear going into practice. I look forward to that because I saw myself physically. I went from an average, chunky kid to all of a sudden, in eighth grade, it’s like, “This guy’s pretty cut.” I’m in good shape. Having that mentality of, “I’m practicing in this tiny gym. This is a small town in Wisconsin. It’s cold outside. Nobody else is doing this.” Talk about giving yourself a mental edge even when you’re 13 or 14.
I walk into those games, I look around and these kids are screwing around and throwing up crazy layups in warm-ups. It’s like, “We’re going to give it to these guys.” It’s having that type of mentorship. The last thing I want to say about that guy, in particular, is I trusted him because I feel he had my life’s best interest in mind as well. That’s another important thing. It’s one thing to say that this guy pushed me so hard, but he did it all for his own good. This guy mentored me. He told me things. He flat out came up to me one day and was like, “If I ever catch you with drugs or alcohol in high school, I’m going to show up at your house.” I won’t complete the sentence but it wasn’t good. Having that type of guy around that I respected and that steered me in the right direction, especially as a guy without any older siblings, was super important to me.
How did this experience prepare you for being an executive, doing things that are outside of basketball?
There’s a lot of things that carry over, but everyone that I ever played for or worked with, you learn little bits and pieces. Sometimes, even when I was younger, I’d write down things about, “I want to be this way, but I don’t want to be like that.” I try to take the best of those things, managing my team and trying to motivate people. When I got a job for the first time where they said, “You’re going to have people that report to you,” I made a checklist for those first few weeks.
How do we set the tone? One of the first things I did is I had one-on-one meetings with each person and got to the root of who they were, what they were about, and what success looks like to them. Having that type of personal relationship with people allows you to work alongside with them the right way. Six months from that day, you look back and you have that understanding and trust that, “We’re all here to hit a common goal maybe but I’m here to help you in a personal journey to get to where you want to be.” I feel that’s a good way to lead people.
What inspired you to write the book, Walk-On Warrior?
I never wanted to be an author. I never thought I would be an author. Back when I was in college, I started journaling things more so because things happened to me or there would be an experience in practice where I’m like, “I’m never going to remember this but I want to remember it.” I started writing stuff down. I graduate from college, get a job, and move on with life. Fast forward, eleven years after that, I’m engaged. My wife is in a challenging medical residency and she’s probably working 100 hours a week. It’s like, “This is going to be like this for three years.”
We had moved to Portland, Oregon. I knew nobody. I’m working, go to the gym, and play pickup hoops. What else can I do to keep myself in a good position and be happy? For some weird reason, I kept going to this book idea of, “What if I went back and put this into a book? It’s not even to go out and sell, but more so to give my kids someday.” I spent the next two years every night working on this thing. I got to the point where at the end, I’m like, “I could sit here and give it to a few people or there’s probably hundreds or thousands of kids out there that are in the same boat as me that would benefit from something like this.” That’s when I had the courage to say, “I’m happy to share this with whoever wants to read it.”
I put it out there and the responses have been amazing. It’s weird how the universe works because I was afraid to put that out there and yet, I’ve gotten so much feedback from people I don’t know. They’re like, “I relate to that in this way. You motivated me to do something or I didn’t feel like I was good enough and now I do.” It’s an amazing gratification to get feedback and even negative feedback too, but it’s great to hear from people. I feel the loneliness that maybe I had in Portland in a weird way was offset by not just writing the book but the responses that came after.
Who is this book for? Who would benefit from reading a book like this?
It’s a basketball story at its core. I don’t want to steer people off of that. If you hate basketball, you’re probably not going to like it. At its core, it’s great for teenagers and their parents. A parent might say, “I’m pushing my son to be a D1 basketball player, football player, or whatever.” Read that book and take a good look in the mirror and tell me if that’s what you want for your kid. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s a reality check on, “This is what it takes. This is what a person goes through and even emotionally, mentally, how challenging that is.” It’s for the kids, too. I coach basketball.
Prior to Portland, my job moved me all over the country. I won’t name the states, but I was in two different states and I coached high school basketball. I had one team. These kids worked hard and at the end of the year, we were in a city tournament. We were total underdogs. We won third place and it was unbelievable. The next stop was the same situation but I had kids that didn’t even know how to practice. They were super entitled and they thought they were the best at everything. We go into this tournament and in the first round, we get beat by 44 points. I was embarrassed. I’m like, “I cannot believe that this is my team.” I bring that up because those two are different situations and you have to learn how to win and practice. Going back to the mentality piece, if your head is in the wrong space, expecting an outcome that you’re not prepared for is unrealistic.
You mentioned the parents who want their kids to play D1 basketball. Do they want to do that? Why would you say that? I know that you’re referring to the rigor and the effort that goes into that. One of the reasons why I appreciate sports at all levels is because of that thing. It pushes you beyond your limits, especially when you have someone that believes in you. They are striving to reach that goal, they want to get there, and they’re going to do everything in their power to get you to that space. It requires a lot out of you. What I find in society at times or in companies as well, even with the pandemic, when we get hit on the blindside or something happens, we forget.
If we don’t have that to go to as a basis, “We’ve been in this situation before. Here’s what we need to do. Here’s the mindset that we’ve got to have to deal with this,” you lose a sense of hope, confidence, and your ability to overcome. That’s something that everyone should experience at some level or another, in my mind, more than less. It’s what we talked about the patterning and conditioning that it builds in you. A lot of people will run away from those types of things. What’s your take on that? I’m asking that question. What’s your concern about parents wanting their kids to play D1 but realizing that, “This is what’s required for that to happen?”Funnel your energy into the right places and find common ground with people. Click To Tweet
It’s not a concern. It’s more of a reality check. Going back to when I was a small kid. When I was eight years old, I joined a track team and I was competing against ten-year-olds. I was getting smoked. I had these two guys on my track team who were way faster than me and were a couple of years older that made me a lot better. Crazy enough is that one guy played in the NFL. He’s the offensive line coach for the Green Bay Packers. The other dude ran track at a small Division Three school. He ended up winning a gold medal in the Athens Olympics in the 400-meter relay. These guys had it.
I bring that up because, from an early age, my parents didn’t push me, and there’s probably no way they could have predicted this, but I was in positions where I pushed myself because of who was around me. Going back to your question, they have to realize that playing in 500 AAU basketball games in summer is probably not the path to achieving that mental discipline to be successful in college. You have to get pushed in some way. You have to get to a point where you’re at that breaking point of, “Can I do this or not?” You’re getting that self-doubt. Maybe that is the parents, maybe it’s finding the right coaches or peers.
The thing I didn’t mention is that a good chunk of the book was written when I was older. I wrote a lot of that book when I was 18, 19, 20 years old, and a lot when I was 33 or 34. It’s funny how your mentality changes at that point. There’s a lot of the book about what happened to me in sports and what I took from that to move up the business ladder. It changed the trajectory of my life. A lot of parents probably would want that for their kids. They should want it but they should be aware that maybe the current path that’s popular in America probably isn’t always the right one.
This is an important topic in my mind because with anything that you want to do in life you’ve heard the cliché, “Anything’s possible.” What comes behind that is, “What is required?” Anything is possible if, and you fill in the blank. Sometimes that could be challenging, demanding, and rigorous, you name it but that’s what stops us. We believe in possibilities. It’s the backside of making that possibility a reality. That’s where the rubber meets the road here and the, “I’m not so sure if I want to take on that. I’m not so sure if I want to go forward with that.”
You’ve heard the saying, “Shoot for the moon. If you don’t make it, at least you’ll be among the stars.” There’s something to be said about taking those types of things. If that’s what you want, you take it on. Sometimes the goal is always the end but we dismiss what we gain along the way. That’s why I make the statement because there’s always something to gain in the pursuit and putting forth the effort. I take a look at you, a D1 basketball player. I never heard of you until now. If you wouldn’t have taken the path that you had taken, you wouldn’t have gained the experiences and the things that you share with me. You’re not an NBA player and none of those things, but you’ve been in the path. You’ve been in that process of what it would take to get to that end.
That wasn’t your calling or your end game, yet there was something to take away from that experience and that’s the highlight. That’s more important. It’s great to get to the end but the journey is more important, in my opinion. Encouragement is where I’m coming from. It’s for parents or students to take it on. If, for some reason, things don’t work out exactly the way you thought, it’s not a complete loss. There’s so much to gain from being in that process and pursuit. We take that for granted. It falls by the wayside, we don’t feel we can get to the end and we don’t pursue. You’ve taken away from yourself when you make those types of decisions, in my opinion.
It’s funny, too, because, as I wrote the book, I kept thinking to myself that this is 100% about the journey. I don’t want this book to be a combination of games won, lost, stats or, “On this date, we did this.” It wasn’t a timeline. It was much like, “This is how it felt after doing these things. This is what it was like after going through a four-hour workout and sitting in the cafeteria by myself with bags of ice on my knees, eating a piece of pizza, and staring at the wall, thinking, ‘How am I going to do this again, tomorrow?’”
Those are the things that you remember. Those are the things you look back on and you’re like, “I’ve got this big presentation next week for work. I’m stressed out about it. This is going to be tough. This guy is the president of this company. I should be intimidated.” I think back to those moments, and it’s like, “This is nothing compared to that. I’m sitting in a comfy chair, talking to somebody on a screen. It’s nothing.” It gives you confidence for the rest of your life in whatever you choose to do. I’m using the physical examples but also when the days are longer. My wife and I had our second kid. I’ve been up all night but I’m excited to play with those kids and make the most of it regardless of whether we got 2 or 10 hours of sleep.
Beyond the wife and the kids, what does life look like for you?
I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I’m the Vice President of Business Development for a brand agency here. We do some cool stuff. We help brands get into Target, Walmart, and Costco. We help grow their business on Amazon. I’ve evolved. I’m still in a competitive space and that’s one of the things that I love about my job. There’s a score being kept in some way. I’ve got numbers to hit and I’m competing against other people that are selling the same things I do.
You have fun along the way and again and use all the things that we talked about to funnel your energy into the right places and find common ground with people. I was joking with my wife that I’ve talked to people in Barcelona, Iceland, and Italy. I’m waking up, throwing sweat pants and a college shirt. Some guys are in suits and this woman is barely dressed. I try to have fun with it all and that’s been one of the fun things that you can push hard, have goals, and be driven. At the same time, if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, it’s going to be a long life.
How can people find you if they wanted to learn more about you, your business, and your work or purchase your book?
You can follow me on Twitter, @JohnWillkom. I’m on LinkedIn. The book is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and most internet retailers. It’s called Walk-On Warrior. I encourage you to check out the book. It was a labor of love. Writing a book is no joke. Sometimes when you finish it, you’re like, “I can’t believe I did that.” I’m proud of the way it turned out. I’ve also been connected to a lot of authors, speakers and people such as yourself, which is the beauty in this whole thing. I’ve read other people’s books and learn about other stories as well. That’s been fun for me.
What you’re explaining is getting on the other side of the thing. I remember when I wrote my first book. There was a way that I felt during the climb. If you got to the top or got on the other side of that particular mountain, it was a different feeling and experience even. It included some of the things that you talked about, meeting people, being on a podcast, the opportunity to start your podcast, a world of opportunities. That takes me back to some of the things we talked about.Take what you have today and do the absolute best with it because, in most cases, it's going to be good enough. Click To Tweet
A lot of times, we focus on the climb, and we forget what’s on the other side. We allow the distractions of the climb to prevent us from getting on the other side because when you get to the other side, when you push past the pain and get over the effort that’s required to get to that other side, it opens up a new world. That world is worth the endurance, continuation, resilience, fortitude, and relentlessness that’s necessary to get there if that’s what you want. It’s good to have you on this side of the mountain. I’m glad that you stuck to it and fulfill that dream and that goal of yours.
I appreciate that. That makes me think about one of my buddies. One of them got to go to Mike Krzyzewski, Coach K over at Duke. He had a leadership conference years ago.
Don’t talk about Duke on this show. It’s Chapel Hill over here. What are you doing? Didn’t you read the fine print?
There was one thing that he took out of what he said. How old is Coach K? He’s in his 70s. He was like, “We’re on this path of never knowing enough. We never have enough information. We’re never practiced enough to be the best at something. You’re never going to be there.” I thought that was always powerful too and I try to remind myself of that. There are always going to be points of ambiguity in my life, job relationship with my wife where it’s not perfect, but you have to keep going. You can’t say, “I can’t be the best VP of eCommerce in the country because I have all these gaps, holes and my resume is not perfect.” Nobody is. If I could leave the readers with that, just take what you have now and do the absolute best with what you have because, in most cases, it’s going to be good enough, and you’ll be glad you took that risk and gave it a shot.
John, thank you for coming to the show. I enjoyed the conversation. I enjoyed meeting you, learning more about you, and living through you. I didn’t get to play D1 basketball, football, or any sport for that matter. It’s good to see that world through your eyes and your experiences. I appreciate that.
I love being on the show. All the best to you. You’re doing a great thing. I can’t wait to read your books and thanks so much for having me on.
There you have it, people. Another successful episode of the Game Changer Mentality A lot of times, we don’t feel that we have enough to climb that mountain or to get to the other side of it. A lot of times, that’s self-doubt maybe from past experiences or past failures. As hard as it is to run one more mile or push one more rep out or whatever it is physically, sometimes it’s as tough mentally to get beyond that self-talk and get beyond those negative emotions.
Sometimes it takes exercise, patience, talking to yourself, pushing yourself, and being compassionate with yourself over and over again to lift that doubt and negative self-talk and get you to that space where what you have is enough. I encourage you to do that. The goal and dream that you have, the thing that you’re trying to accomplish is worth the effort, repetition, and continuation of pursuing that goal and that dream to the point where you’re willing to do that last rep. You’re willing to run that one more mile and speak to yourself in a way that gives you the confidence and the strength to keep going. Keep on going. I’m counting on you. I’m in your corner. I’m rooting for you and I can’t wait to see you on the other side. Until next time, peace and love.
- Walk-On Warrior
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About John Willkom
John Willkom is a former Division 1 basketball player at Marquette University, who later earned his MBA from Loyola University Chicago. The co-founder of Playmakers Basketball, John implemented collegiate-level workouts into a basketball camp circuit and AAU program aimed to provide better opportunities to kids in the Midwest. Prior to his current role as an ecommerce executive, John worked with high school and collegiate athletic programs on the importance of proper nutrition and the development of fueling stations to enhance athletic performance. Widely recognized for his basketball passion, you can still find John coaching youth teams and playing pick-up games at a local gym. John, his wife, Allison, and their daughter, Avery, currently reside in Minneapolis, MN.
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